Background: At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, images of an empty Times Square flooded the media as a reminder for how severely public life was changing in New York City. Yet we knew the streets were not empty—thousands of New Yorkers were still working, and 30,000 people were passing through Times Square alone at the height of the pandemic. We worked with Poster House, PRINT magazine and For Freedoms to rally artists and designers to create PSAs and messages of solidarity and gratitude for the health care and essential workers keeping the city running amidst this crisis. With digital displays across the city’s five boroughs and the screens of Times Square as our platform, we forged a sense of connection during a time when we are being asked to stay apart. This digital PSA project broadcasts health and safety recommendations, messages of thanks to frontline workers and encouragement to New Yorkers.
Reasoning: Artists are our greatest visual communicators, and uniquely skilled at processing complex ideas and emotions in a way that can be uplifting, comforting and profound. Art will always be critical to our public spaces, and in this moment, it feels as important as ever. We were looking for ways to fulfill our mission from behind closed doors, and posters have a long history in assisting during public health crises. It seemed natural to commission PSAs to address the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we could not send people out on the street to post physical posters, so we turned to digital outlets. Out of Home advertisers stepped up to the plate, offering over 2,000 screens in New York City alone to display these important messages.
Challenges: The pace at which we had to move. We were faced with new challenges and speed bumps that we had to maneuver around quickly. Luckily, our partners, artists and collaborators were eager to respond to the current crisis and create a unifying message of support. Also, coordinating the needs and characters of the OOH advertisers with the more than 20 designers who contributed PSAs. Each venue has its own identity and clients, and the PSAs need to fit that brief.
Favorite details: The reach of this project, and how it’s resonated with audiences in New York City and around the world. We’ve received positive messages from health care workers and everyday New Yorkers; even media companies have reached out to donate digital space to share the project and expand the reach. We are also proud of how quickly our collaborators and artists came together to act in this shared sense of urgency. Many of the artists, like Jenny Holzer and Carrie Mae Weems, were already creating works and messages in response to this crisis, so it was humbling to unify and create a platform to amplify those voices. Also, mounting this project at this specific time. Our #CombatCovid PSA project turned gigantic commerce and advertising units in the heart of New York City into a PSA/public art outlet to send out positive messages of hope, gratitude and solidarity. It was a rare moment that came in a difficult time, in which we all shared the same goals and values.
Visual influences: We saw a lot of designers turn to typography for inspiration; some looked back at historical PSAs for reference. Time constraints: Timing was crucial for this project, but the designers worked with incredible speed and skill to get assets to advertisers quickly. Ultimately, the time constraint helped the project because the owners of all these screens were looking for ways to contribute.
Specific demands: This project was designed to be responsive to the moment, so the need to move quickly presented both challenges and advantages—it was easier in that we moved faster than we typically would and collaborations were more fluid. On the other hand, the pace was challenging in that there was a lot of administrative work to knock out behind the scenes in a condensed amount of time.
Anything new: As the pandemic heightened, many of the artists’ designs began to reveal more personal experiences. Duke Riley, who recently recovered from COVID-19 himself, pays homage to nurses. Christine Sun Kim’s mother is a health care worker and Kameelah Janan Rasheed shares that her husband is an essential worker. The works illuminate how the distance between the frontlines and the rest of us is narrow.